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What’s the difference between jealousy and envy?

In polyamory, we talk about jealousy a lot. It’s usually the first topic monogamous folks question us about and something that almost all of us have to navigate at some point in our relationships. So, when I recently found myself comparing my life with somebody else’s, I figured I must be experiencing jealousy. Or was it envy? Is there a difference?

It turns out there is – and quite a clear difference, too. So, here’s a quick guide to jealousy vs envy so you know the right word for each feeling.

Jealousy vs envy: what’s the difference?

Jealousy and envy are often used interchangeably because they involve strong emotions concerning another person. One is about comparison, and the other is about competition, so unsurprisingly, they are often mixed up.

In most languages, jealousy and envy are associated with the colour green. Shakespeare famously depicted characters experiencing these emotions as being green-eyed, but long before that, queer icon Sappho described herself as green after seeing her ex-lover with another person. The Greeks believed jealousy and envy made you ill, hence the pale, clammy, green hue.

Of course, jealousy and envy don’t only come up in romantic relationships. You can experience these emotions with your family members, co-workers or even someone you’ve seen on social media. In fact, the digital landscape has added a whole new realm to fuel feelings like these.

Yet, even though these words share similar sentiments, they describe distinctly different situations, as I discovered after listening to relationship coach Dr Joli Hamilton on the Multiamory podcast about Unraveling Jealousy in Five Steps. So, if you’ve ever wanted to know which word to use in which situation, here’s how Hamilton explained it.

Jealousy definition

As it turns out, the difference is a numbers game. “I can identify jealousy because it’s always triangular,” says Hamilton, meaning that there has to be three people involved for it to be jealousy. “If we’re talking about jealousy, I describe it this way. I have me, the jealous one. I have my beloved, and I have the perceived interrupter.”

That’s why jealousy is often discussed in relation to romantic relationships, such as feeling like a third party could disrupt your connection with a partner. But it isn’t limited to these types of relationships. According to Hamilton, we develop the emotional response of jealousy as early as six months old. So, as an infant, your beloved is your parents or caregiver, and the perceived interrupter is most likely to be one of your siblings or someone else who is potentially diverting their attention away from you. That means it’s natural to experience jealousy.

Some common examples of jealousy include:

  • “I feel like my sibling has a closer relationship with our father than I do.”
  • “My partner has booked another weekend away with my metamour, and I feel hurt they haven’t made similar plans with me.”

We often associate emotional responses like fear, insecurity and anger with jealousy and express it through behaviours like possessiveness, sabotage, and even violence. Thus, we’re socialised to see jealousy as something negative that we should avoid at all costs. 

Yet, instead of being scared of these feelings, you should try to sit with them when they arise and try to understand where they are coming from and what you could do to help shift them. In the above examples, your jealousy could show that you would like to deepen your relationship with your father and find a way for you and your partner to be more proactive about making weekend plans.

Envy definition

When there isn’t a triangle but simply a direct connection between you and another, that’s envy. As Hamilton explains, “Envy: it has me and this other. They have what I want, and there is no third person involved.” So, envy is experienced when you look at another person’s life, be it their career, house, style, or whatever, and wish you had what they have.

That’s why RuPaul’s song Jealous of My Boogie is incorrect. The person addressed in the song is envious, not jealous because they wish they could dance like him. In fact, drag queens often call each other out for jealousy when they should actually challenge each other about envy.

Keeping with the theme, here are some drag-themed examples of envy:

  • “I wish I could paint my face like that.”
  • “I’m just as funny as them. I should have won Snatch Game.”

As you can see, envy is often characterised by a sense of admiration and longing. You may see someone else’s success or possessions and wish you had the same. However, envy does not necessarily mean you feel threatened by the other person. You may simply be yearning or aspiring.

That said, feelings of envy could highlight your insecurity and may cause you to feel resentful or bitter if left unaddressed. So, again, it’s better to look at why those emotions are coming up for you and consider how you could work towards fulfilling your life goals rather than focusing on another person’s success. After all, even when someone has what you want, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily happier than you.

Conclusion: jealousy vs envy

The easiest way to remember the difference between jealousy and envy is to follow Hamilton’s numbers guide. If there are three people involved, it’s jealousy. If it’s just you and another, it’s envy.

Here’s a handle table to help you remember:

FocusWhat someone else hasWhat you have
People involvedTwoThree
Underlying emotionDesireFear
Common triggersMaterial possessions, skills, talents, relationshipsAttention, affection, possessions, status
Behavioral responsesComparison, resentment, bitternessCompetition, possessiveness, sabotage

Remember, it is natural to feel these emotions occasionally throughout your life. It’s what you do with those feelings that matters.

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